Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Courthouse Project”

For Pride Month, Deberry discusses life as a queer woman, justice for all and her inspiration

On the eighth floor of the Durham courthouse, a beige tower that is home to the county’s criminal justice system, you will find the office of District Attorney Satana Deberry. With colorful pillows and local art on every wall, her office seems out of place in the drab building. But Deberry, a black queer woman, hasn’t been a typical prosecutor. 

She oversees a system that often entangles people that look just like her. But she is the one running it – and trying to change it. 

Studies have found that LGBTQ people, like people of color, are disproportionately harmed by our justice system. Deberry, elected in 2018 on a mandate of criminal justice reform, has brought a unique understanding of the LGBTQ community to the DA’s office.

In an interview for Pride Month, she spoke with The 9th Street Journal about her life as a queer woman and her feelings about representation and justice.

We all have idols that shape us. In a framed photo tucked in the corner of her office, Deberry memorializes hers: Barbara Jordan.

Jordan, a “towering figure” in the 1970s, was one of the first black women to serve in the Texas State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. She, like Deberry, was unafraid to challenge the status quo.

During President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing, Jordan famously declared: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”

While she never publicly revealed her sexuality, Jordan lived with a partner for 20 years until she died in 1996.

“I wanted to be Barbara Jordan,” said Deberry. “Barbara Jordan was the first black woman that I saw that I knew.” 

Building a Life

With Barbara Jordan in mind, young Deberry chased excellence in school. She decided good grades would be her path out of Hamlet, N.C. – a town of 6,000 between Charlotte and Fayetteville. It worked. Her determination and focus on academics carried her all the way to Princeton and through law school at Duke University. To this day, she still doesn’t “see light blue.”

She was always focused on her studies, so it wasn’t until her mid to late 20s, after graduating from law school, that Deberry began to understand her own sexuality. “It started to occur to me that I had to build a life. And how was I going to build that life?” 

She realized there was only one option. “It was never a case that I wasn’t going to be out. Because that’s just not who I am,” she said.

The core values of openness and transparency that she brings to her office stem from her own disposition. “I’m always trying to be my best self. And so, I don’t really think of being myself as being brave. I mean, that’s what we’re all doing.” 

When she came out, her parents were not surprised. “We already knew that,” they told her matter-of-factly, “so you should probably tell us something new.” 

Her parents were supportive, but for her mother, queer life was associated with tragedy. Deberry’s aunt, who today would likely identify as trans, lived a dangerous life and was ultimately killed. “I think for my parents, especially for my mother, that was the only kind of life you could have as a queer person . . . on the edges of society.”

Deberry worked for a few years as a criminal lawyer before taking jobs at various non-profit groups like Self-Help and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Then from 2013 to 2018, she served as the head of N.C. Housing Coalition – all while raising three daughters as a single mother. 

In 2018, she was elected the county’s chief prosecutor by promising bold reform. Rejecting the hard-line approach of many district attorneys, she vowed to put less emphasis on non-violent crime and said she would address racial bias in the system. 

Black women account for a tiny share of the nation’s DAs. In 2014, 79%  percent of elected prosecutors were white men, and only 1% were women of color. 

Talking to Deberry, who sports hoop earrings and blue Adidas tennis shoes, it becomes clear that she has not made it to the eighth floor in spite of her intersecting identities, but rather because of them. “Because I come at this from a cultural position of traditionally being powerless, I feel like I understand what’s at stake in a different way,” she said. 

DAs wield tremendous power in deciding which criminal cases get prosecuted. Unlike many prosecutors, her identity as a black, queer woman overlaps with many of those likely to be involved in our imbalanced criminal justice system. 

She says she brings her unique perspective to her work. “There are just experiences in my life, certainly as a queer person, that inform the decisions I make and the policies that we implement here.” 

‘The worst day of their lives’

During her time as DA, she has limited the use of cash bail, has scaled back prosecution of school-based offenses, and has focused on prosecuting violent crimes rather than low-level drug possession charges. She says these policies work to reduce the jail population and keep vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system. 

She also recognizes the way the system harms LGBTQ people. 

According to the most recent National Inmate Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three-times as likely to be incarcerated, and a third of all women in prison identify as queer. Studies show transgender people are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. This rate is even higher for LGBTQ youth, who make up 20% of the juvenile justice system

LGBTQ people also are disproportionately victims of violent crime. The Williams Institute found they were four-times as likely to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.

Deberry knows the statistics – and the challenges they reflect. “The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that not only are all the defendants poor black and brown people, but all the victims are as well,” she said. “So being poor, being black, being brown, being LGBTQ, all of those things put you in a situation in this country of just having access to fewer resources.”

To combat these disparities, her office uses a broader definition of domestic violence than the state government, to include same-sex dating couples. Her office also recognizes people by their chosen gender identity, a respect not common in the criminal justice system. And their special victims unit, which focuses on sexual assault, now handles cases in which someone is targeted due to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. “If that is part of the crime, we talk about it,” Deberry said. 

She wants to bring humanity to a system that can be insensitive and biased.

“The way that the system acts is to reduce people to the worst day of their lives” said Deberry, “and there’s so much focus on that particular act that we don’t spend a lot of time focused on the person.” 

If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy

For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. “For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.” 

As Deberry has gotten older (she is now 52), she has noticed that her queerness has ruffled fewer feathers. “It’s been interesting to me how little it comes up in this role,” she said. Most people just don’t know or don’t ask – she is not sure which. 

“I think that the real stick in the system is that I’m a black woman. I think that is what really pisses people off.”  

But to Deberry, her work is all part of a larger goal. “When you’re growing up in a black family, there’s a saying, ‘If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.’ And really the truth of the world is that if, black women, black queer women, and black trans women are safe, then everybody is safe.”

She is working to create that world for her three daughters –  two are 16 and one is 19 – who predominantly communicate in TikToks and GIFs. They, too, have offered Deberry a window into the evolving queer community. 

“For my kids’ friends, they just try on a lot more things. They have friends who are pan, and friends who are trans, and friends who are nonbinary. They have friends who have already transitioned genders,” said Deberry “In that sense, I think those kids are brave.”

The life she has led was not one that many people could have envisioned when she was first coming out, she said.  But today, “you get to be anybody as a queer woman.”

This is what pride means for her:

“Representation matters. And, you know, you hear people say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do know that somewhere out there, seeing me is meaningful to somebody – just like seeing Barbara Jordan was meaningful to me. And so that’s really what pride means for me. That you get to see the full range of who you get to possibly be.”

At top, photo of Satana Deberry by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal

Durham courtrooms made COVID-safe

Court officials separated by glass dividers, seats taped off to create additional distance, and jurors scattered in the courtroom gallery where the public sits. In the Durham County Courthouse, this is the new normal for jury trials. 

On Jan. 27, Durham County Superior Court concluded its first in-person jury trial since last March, when former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley closed courtrooms across North Carolina in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Her successor, Paul Newby, who defeated Beasley in the November election, made good on a campaign pledge in January, when he ordered the courts to reopen for in-person trials and other proceedings.

Court reporter Denise St. Clair works during a break in Durham Superior Court, where the judge and other court officials are isolated behind glass panels. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

At the same time, Chief Justice Newby emphasized the continued importance of protecting the health of everyone in the courthouse. Face masks and social distancing are required, and anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus or shows symptoms is not allowed to enter the building.

Court officials have made physical, technological and scheduling adjustments to prepare for the new in-person proceedings, while keeping COVID precautions in place.

‘Just at a slower pace’

In the past, Durham Superior Court typically held a few jury trials each month, but now there will be only about one each month. 

“Every courtroom has a new capacity that is 20% of its typical capacity, to make people space out,” said Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Satana Deberry. “And because of that, we have to reduce the docket for each day. Everything is happening, it’s just happening at a slower pace.” 

Some courtroom seats are blocked off, to promote social distancing. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Although jury trials will be held in person, judges will conduct some proceedings online, including juvenile cases and first appearances. 

For first appearances, the judge and other court officials typically participate in person at the courthouse, while the defendant appears on video. This arrangement reduces the need to transport detainees between the Durham County Detention Facility and the courthouse, in order to cut the risk of spreading the coronavirus, Willets said. 

The courthouse is open to the public, but courtroom seating is limited to allow for social distancing. Parties involved in a court proceeding get priority. Journalists also can attend trials but should contact the presiding judge in advance for approval, Willets said.

The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts issued guidelines for selecting the order in which jury trials are held, but Deberry is ultimately responsible for setting the court calendar.

“Our priorities remain the same as they have always been, which is to focus on trying the most serious and most violent crimes,” Deberry said.

The docket is being selected by how essential each case is and whether it’s ready to go to trial, Willets said.

Deberry said she will work to clear court cases from the pandemic backlog this year.

“We are optimistic about continuing to move our District Court cases forward and adding more of those to the calendar,” she said. 

9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Top: In-person trials have resumed at the Durham County Courthouse – but with fewer trials than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with fewer people in the courtroom. Some proceedings will still take place online. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

‘He’ll push back’: T. Greg Doucette’s crusade against hypocrisy, police violence, and big government

It was five days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and T. Greg Doucette was mad. 

Doucette, a criminal defense and small business attorney in Durham, was angry with the way police were treating protesters: beating them, pepper-spraying them, and, in one case, even trampling them with a horse. And so, around noon on May 30, Doucette did what he often does when he wants to gripe: he tweeted, creating a thread of 10 videos showing instances of police brutality toward protesters. 

His thread went viral, retweeted by Trevor Noah and John Cusack and scores of others. Twitter analytics showed it reached millions of users. Suddenly people started sending him thousands of videos of police violence, and Doucette kept adding to the thread, with a counter so people could keep track. He gained 100,000 followers (on top of his previous 30,000). Soon, the “Police Brutality Mega-Thread” had ballooned to hundreds of clips. 

“It was like, holy shit, this has gone beyond what I expected,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And I got to figure out how to manage it.” 

Doucette’s sudden Twitter fame was partly a reflection of the moment — a nation waking up to the pervasive problem of police violence — and partly a product of his Twitter addiction (he’ll often tweet 100 times a day). 

But though the 100,000 Twitter followers were new, the blistering honesty of the thread was not. 

Whether he’s insulting Jeff Sessions (“human gutter trash”) or skewering the UNC Board of Governors, Doucette will give you his unvarnished opinion. Since 2017, he has hosted a podcast called “#Fsck ‘Em All,” in which he rails against corruption and abuse in the justice system as well as what he calls “political f*ckery.”  

Recently, he’s taken to YouTube to challenge Van Jones, a news commentator who gave a TED Talk titled “What if a U.S. presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?” In the video, Van Jones explains how a president could exploit “legal loopholes” in the Constitution to stay in office. 

“Van Jones is WRONG,” Doucette contends in his 50-minute YouTube video. It is quintessential Doucette — funny, thorough, nerdy and crass. 

“There is no profanity in the presentation, but I do tend to cuss a lot,” he says, hovering at the bottom left of the screen and wearing a t-shirt from North Carolina Central University School of Law. Thirty seconds later, he calls his video “boring as shit.” 

The video has attracted over 130,000 views — and some controversy. When someone in the comments section disputed one of his claims, Doucette weighed in: “Basically every comment and reply you’ve made here is wrong, it’s actually impressive! Enjoy the Biden administration.” 

He’s a rascal and a reformer, a crusader for justice, or — if you’re on the receiving end of his Twitter onslaught — a pain in the neck. 

“If you’re being a dick, he’ll push back,” said Kahran Myers-Davis, a former attorney at Doucette’s firm. “He’ll push back on you on Twitter, he’ll push back on you in public. He’ll push back on people in his real life who aren’t living their values or who are being unethical or condescending or rude. That’s just who he is.” 

* * *

Both times I interviewed Doucette, he appeared on my screen wearing black headphones and a gray shirt that said “NCCU Trial Advocacy Board” (does he only wear NCCU shirts?). Bald and 39 years old, he’s a self-described “full-time curmudgeon, part-time Twitter celebrity, occasional attorney.”

Doucette talks like he tweets: non-stop, unfiltered, his words laced with zingers and occasional f-bombs, his face lit with an impish smile. 

Unlike most advocates for criminal justice reform, who come from the left, he’s a conservative, though he abandoned the Republican party after President Trump’s election in 2016 (he’s now registered as unaffiliated). His watchdog mentality reflects his skepticism about the state. 

“I don’t trust the government,” he said. “If you allow the government to steamroll people that don’t have power, they’re gonna steamroll the people that do, the first chance they get.” 

His strategy is simple. “You have to keep the government in its little box. And if it ever steps out of the box, you smack it in the face and you put it back in the box.” 

Doucette grew up in Virginia Beach in a home where his mother and stepfather fought a lot. 

 I grew up in the type of home many would consider ‘white trash,’” Doucette wrote on the website for his state Senate campaign in 2016. “Poor, frequent substance abuse, more frequent domestic violence (something so ‘normal’ in my life I didn’t even know it was called ‘domestic violence’ until law school).

In high school, he was recruited by Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its computer engineering program, but he decided on attending North Carolina State University because tuition was cheaper.

Then, a setback: his parents refused to provide him with tax information, so Doucette couldn’t qualify for financial aid. He dropped out, worked odd jobs, lived out of his truck and used his girlfriend’s dorm room to shower. 

When he finally got enough money to enroll, he became president of the UNC Association of Student Governments, a group that includes student representatives from schools across North Carolina, including NC State. He eventually graduated with a degree in computer science. 

Doucette was fun but in a “nerdy” kind of way, said Ashley Yopp, who met him through the Association of Student Governments. At parties, instead of playing beer pong, Doucette would be deep in conversation with someone about a new idea. 

“He talks big, but he doesn’t put on airs,” Yopp said. “He is who he is.”

In August 2009, Doucette enrolled in NCCU’s School of Law, a historically Black college in Durham. He picked NCCU because it was cheaper than UNC. After graduating, he wanted to start a nonprofit called “NC SPICE” that would be an incubator for other attorneys trying to set up their practices. 

“The logo was a pepper grinder with the scales of justice, really slick, man,” he said, rummaging through his computer for a picture. 

But Doucette hit a speed bump when the IRS stopped processing applications for nonprofit groups. So Doucette started his own firm “kind of by accident.” He chose Durham because of the resources and connections at NCCU. He was sworn in as an attorney in 2012. (He eventually founded the nonprofit and now works as its executive director.) 

He started out focusing on business litigation and higher education law. He fell into criminal law by happenstance. 

“For whatever reason,” he said, “I still had this old-school Republican notion that criminal defense lawyers are just icky creatures.” 

* * *

In November 2013, Doucette took on a client who was a student at NCCU and had been caught selling weed. It became a turning point in his legal career.  

During their first conversation, according to Doucette, the student said he wanted to be “Durham’s weed man.” The student had brought a business plan on how to sell weed, complete with marketing projections and a color-coded map of everywhere in the country it was legal. 

“You know how you watch movies, and you hear the record-scratch moment, and everyone freezes? That’s how it was during the client interview,” Doucette recalled.  

Though he thought it would be impossible to help the student receive a lenient sentence, Doucette took on the case.

In February 2014, Doucette defended the student in court by arguing that the evidence for the case be suppressed. To his surprise, the court accepted his argument and dismissed the case. 

Later, in the hallway of the Durham courthouse, the client grabbed Doucette’s arm. 

“Bro, you are a white Jesus,” Doucette remembers him saying. “That was a miracle. Give me your business cards. I’m going to send all of my customers to you.” 

Sure enough, Doucette soon got a call. “[The student] said you’re a miracle worker. I caught a charge. I need your help,” the caller told him. The next day, Doucette got two more calls. Then, in March, on his birthday, Doucette received an email announcing someone had bought him a domain: www.durhamweedlawyer.com. The client had put his marketing skills to work. 

“So it ended up, by the middle of 2015, most of the people in Durham who were selling weed in a given part of town, I was their defense attorney,” Doucette said. 

To this day, many of his clients are still charged with drug-related crimes. He also represents protesters, whether from Moral Monday or Black Lives Matter — a part of his practice he describes as his “ministry.” 

“I do stuff on Twitter, but I also like being in the courtroom and being able to defend people who are being oppressed by their government,” he said. 

At its peak, his law firm, which is located on 311 East Main Street, had multiple attorneys, interns and a receptionist. Then, in 2016, he made a longshot bid for state Senate in a district that includes Durham County. Though he won more votes than any Republican to run for the seat and got an endorsement from INDY Week, he still lost badly to incumbent Mike Woodard. 

It was an “incredibly stupid” decision, he said — and it almost bankrupted his firm. 

Immersing himself in his campaign meant less time for marketing and finding new clients. His business crumpled. His attorneys left. The next year was dreadful for Doucette. 

“I’ve fallen into this rat race of churning through cases at the law firm to make rent each month,” he wrote in a blog post in April 2017. “But don’t really feel like I’m moving forward toward any given objective beyond rent-paying (which is a fantastically low goal in life). It’s terribly frustrating, especially for someone who’s climbed up from how far down I was back in 2000. And the way forward is a complete mystery to me.” 

Today, Doucette is the only employee at his firm. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, he works most days from home, where he lives with his wife, Jeanne Chen, an optometrist he married in October, and with his “kids”: a dog (Chance) and two cats (Biscuit and Oliver). When he goes into the office two times a week, it’s very quiet, and he keeps iTunes playing in the background. 

Beneath the cocky exterior, Doucette feels for others. Since 2015, he has organized an annual fundraiser to provide groceries for underprivileged elementary school kids in Durham. This year, he raised over $55,000. Lowes lent him an 18-wheeler to transport the 3,642 bags of groceries. 

“He had that truly human ability to put himself into people’s situations and to care for them as individuals,” recalled Myers-Davis, Doucette’s former attorney. “Many of his clients of the firm, even folks that I’ve worked with, have come back and said, ‘You know, I’m doing this and this because Greg gave me advice, not as my attorney, but as a person who really cared about me.’”

* * *

His strong feelings against police violence aren’t new. He says he has been sharing videos of police misconduct for the past 13 years.

Select your membership level and you can be part of Doucette’s #FSCK community.

“Do I hate police?” he wrote in one of his tweets. “No. I hate raging incompetent cowboys w/ badges financed by my tax money who clearly haven’t had an eye exam recently.”

Doucette has also been ranting about police misconduct on his “#Fsck ‘Em All” podcast. Like its creator, the podcast is a little geeky. “Fsck” is the name of a computer software tool for checking the consistency of a file system; Doucette describes his podcast as “your weekly consistency check on America’s political and legal filesystems.” It’s also a source of income: for $3 to $25 per month, fans can gain exclusive access to bonus episodes and “Become part of the #Fsck community!”

In his slight southern drawl, Doucette calls out cops from across the country: a North Carolina sex crimes detective who committed sex crimes, a Florida deputy who framed motorists for drug offenses, Texas cops who beat a domestic violence victim. 

“He is showing that you don’t have to be Black to call out social injustice,” said Deyaska Sweatman, one of Doucette’s law school classmates. “His megaphone is loud, not just because he’s really good in the Twitterverse. But his megaphone is loud because he really, really cares. He really has been fighting this fight from the beginning.”

In photo above, Doucette in front of the Durham County courthouse. Photo courtesy of T. Greg Doucette. 

Medical examiner drops “homicide” from Bill Bishop’s cause of death

More than five months after prosecutors dropped murder charges against Durham teenager Alexander Bishop for killing his father Bill Bishop, the North Carolina Medical Examiner has reclassified the cause of death from homicide to “undetermined.”

The state medical examiner made significant changes to the revised report, which was signed Friday, removing several key facts and saying that “no information was available” about the dog leash at the center of the homicide case.

Previously, the report said that Alexander found Bill unresponsive with the leash wrapped around Bill’s neck three times, with the leash handle on his arm and the family dog, Winston, still attached. Now it merely says Bill was found unresponsive, “possibly with a dog leash on this neck.”

It is unclear what Friday’s surprising development means for the future of the case. Prosecutors dropped charges in February, citing insufficient evidence. Bill Bishop’s girlfriend Julie Seel says the Durham District Attorney’s Office made the wrong decision in dropping those charges and has called for a new homicide investigation in a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein.

In February, Sarah Willets, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, told the 9th Street Journal that charges could be refiled against Alexander. At the time, she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.

The 9th Street Journal has reached out to Willets and Alexander’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, for comment. Neither responded in time for publication.

Some of the other changes to the autopsy report included removing discussion of evidence that was tossed from the case in October by Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. He excluded the evidence because he found the lead investigator’s statements to get search warrants were false or were in “reckless disregard of the truth.”

That included the claim about the leash being wrapped around Bill’s neck three times, as well as a claim that Alexander found Bill on the floor, when Alexander had actually told investigators he found him in a chair.

In the revised report, the core medical facts remain the same.

The autopsy still says Bill was strangled with a “ligature,” some kind of cord-like device. Because of the strangulation, he died from a lack of oxygen to the brain, the report says. The manner of death has been switched to “undetermined” from “homicide” after the circumstances surrounding Bill’s death became “unclear.”

Four forensics experts previously told the 9th Street Journal these same medical facts indicated it was highly unlikely that Winston could have killed Bill.

The autopsy still says Bill had an enlarged heart and an 80 percent blockage in his heart’s left main coronary artery and a second left coronary artery. Bill’s ex-wife and family have argued that Bill died of a heart attack.

These same experts also shot down that explanation, saying such a blockage could cause a cardiac event, but that it wasn’t likely he died of a heart attack.

Staff writer Ben Leonard can be reached at ben.leonard@duke.edu

Three couples, three kisses in the Durham courthouse

Jarinette Gonzalez and Yeison Reyes gazed into each other’s eyes and drew closer.  They had just been married by Durham County Magistrate Aminah Thompson, and Gonzalez had a big smile as their lips touched. For a wedding kiss, though, it was surprisingly short. Just a quick smooch.

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez opted for more choreography – grasping hands in a four way knot. But the kiss itself was just a peck.

And then Henry Cruz and Bessy Zaldivar. Wow. They were dressed casually, the bride all in black (a blazer and slacks plus leather booties) and Cruz in white canvas shoes and a navy button-down with fine polka dots. 

But their kiss was the most spirited. They were giddy as Zaldivar put her hands on the sides of Cruz’s head and stretched her fingers into his wavy dark hair. Their puckered lips met and separated – again and again and again. Four kisses to begin their life together.

Depending on the couple, the weddings in Magistrate’s Courtroom 3 are quick or passionate or sometimes even a little nervous.

Every weekday, magistrates conduct weddings at the Durham County Courthouse. Weddings continue during the coronavirus pandemic, with ceremonies held between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m or between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Couples don’t have to sign up in advance for the ceremony. All they need is a $60 marriage license. 

In the courthouse, couples can have a wedding on a whim.

Courthouse weddings are an eclectic mix – grooms wearing polka-dot shirts and brides in black. Guests capture the moment in iPhone videos and sometimes ask bystanders to act as wedding photographers. Some bring friends and relatives; others come alone.

For working-class Durham residents, courthouse weddings are efficient and inexpensive. Couples can knock venue planning, officiant selection, and the photographer search off their prenuptial to-do list. 

But the couples get what they plan and pay for. Weddings last about seven minutes with no frills: no music, no procession, no sermon, and no prayer.

Gonzalez and Reyes

It is Valentine’s Day and Thompson has brightened the small, windowless magistrate’s courtroom by wearing a bright red blazer. 

Reyes, 19, and Gonzalez, 23, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for their vows. They met just five months ago when a mutual friend introduced them. Reyes is from Honduras, and Gonzalez is from Puerto Rico.

Witnesses record Jarinette Gonzalez and Yeison Reyes’s wedding on iPhone cameras. Photo by Kristi Sturgill | The 9th Street Journal

Gonzalez’s father Victor Gonzalez and witness Carmen Morales stand beside them, watching through iPhone screens so they can simultaneously record video and observe the vows. Gonzalez’s father lowers his iPhone camera for a moment and opens a small box. He hands Reyes a band for his bride. 

As Thompson continues her scripted Spanish vows, Gonzalez holds her left hand in her right, admiring the new wedding ring. 

After Thompson arrives at the “beso” part of the script – the kiss – she sits down and watches the couple smooch.

Wedding words

Thompson’s coworker, Magistrate Terry Fisher, says the Durham Courthouse does many of his weddings in Spanish. “I don’t know if it’s half, but we do a significant number,” he says. 

Some magistrates know the entire ceremony script in Spanish, while others switch to the language only for the “to have and to hold” section.

Though English and Spanish are by far the most common languages, Fischer also remembers couples who spoke Mandarin or Vietnamese. Sometimes the couple will bring interpreters, but that’s not always the case. 

“If you’re here for litigation, whatever language you speak, we can request an interpreter from the Administrative Office of the Courts,” Fisher said. “But those people are not available to us for weddings. So we just have to do the best we can.”

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez

Hernandez, 31, and Ardon, 28, are both from El Salvador. 

A delicate golden watch dangles off Ardon’s left wrist, and a new wedding band sits on her ring finger. Hernandez faces her lightly holding both her palms until Ardon raises her hand to admire the ring. Then they grasp hands in a four way knot.

Ardon tosses her head to move her bangs out of her eyes. She raises her chin and watches the magistrate say, “Puede besar a la novia.” You can kiss the bride.

They move their hands from the four-way clasp into a hug and lean in for a quick peck of the lips. 

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez hug after their wedding in Magistrate’s Courtroom 3. Photo by Kristi Sturgill.

Ardon’s hand slides down Hernandez’s pale brown coat. She turns toward her audience of five, and she smiles and claps. 

The couple and their friends file into the 3rd-floor hallway. They pose for a photo along a window that looks out on a cloudy downtown-Durham day. The slanted and pixelated photo is hardly picture-perfect, but it captures the community that will support Ardon and Hernandez in their new life.

In photo at top, Henry Cruz and Bessy Zaldivar embrace for their marital smooch. Photo by Kristi Sturgill | The 9th Street Journal

Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss

Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr., 55, died last week and his death certificate is very clear about the cause of death: “COVID-19 / acute hypoxic respiratory failure.” 

But several days after his death, the Durham County Sheriff’s office won’t acknowledge why he died or give any details on where he worked or if he could have exposed inmates or other staff at the county jail. Spokesman David Bowser said the office can’t discuss the cause of death or details about Pettiway because it is a “personnel” issue and his privacy is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). 

Bowser could only offer assurances that no inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. He did not say if there had been any changes in procedures following Pettiway’s death. The sheriff’s office and the death certificate conflict on the day of his death: the office says Saturday, and the certificate says Friday. 

Last week, the Sheriff’s Office had announced that six Durham County Detention Center staff tested positive for COVID-19, but also declined to say where they worked or how much the workers interacted with others. 

The office’s lack of details doesn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. 

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.” 

Along with others, Meier has to go into the jail frequently to visit clients via video kiosks, so he said it would be helpful to know if he had come into contact with any staff that had tested positive. He said he also is frustrated that the sheriff’s office didn’t directly tell local attorneys that staff had tested positive for the highly infectious virus. 

Meier said he and other lawyers are criticized for filings asking for relief for clients due to the dangers of COVID-19 in jail, but there isn’t enough information to know that the jail is safe. 

“They say it’s not [dangerous], but won’t provide the information for us to know that,” Meier said. 

Meier noted that Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did tell CBS17 last week that one of the six that tested positive worked with inmates and that “a majority of the six employees worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs.” 

But official statements from the communications office have lacked those details. The release about Pettiway’s death offered condolences and, without drawing a direct connection, pointed out the steps the sheriff implemented more than a month ago to slow the spread of the virus. 

The jail took steps to fight the spread of coronavirus on March 16, including banning all in-person and video visitation, using video kiosks for client meetings and having all first appearance hearings via video conference. The medical staff has been conducting COVID-19 screenings and making masks available to inmates. 

Amid coronavirus outbreaks plaguing jails and prisons nationwide, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has worked to reduce the jail population. The jail is well below capacity with only 259 inmates out of a possible 736. Deberry also has worked to cut the state prison population by green-lighting modified sentences for some prisoners. 

“The Durham DA’s Office extends its deepest condolences for the loss of Senior Detention Officer Pettiway, a dedicated public servant. Our thoughts are with his family and the entire Durham County Sheriff’s Office,” Deberry told The 9th Street Journal via a spokesperson. “We will continue to review cases individually and make recommendations regarding release conditions based on public health and public safety.”

Bill Bishop’s former girlfriend asks for his homicide case to be reopened

Two months after prosecutors dropped charges in the death of Durham real estate developer Bill Bishop, his former girlfriend is asking authorities to give the case another look. 

Julie Seel says the Durham District Attorney’s Office was wrong to drop murder charges against Bill’s teenage son Alexander and has written a letter to a host of government officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, calling for a new homicide investigation. 

“Bill deserves better than the horrible injustice of his death, the poor investigation of his death, the poor defense of his death, the poor decisions in his case to throw out evidence, and the poor choice to dismiss charges,” Seel wrote in the letter, which she posted on a Facebook page she called “2 Year Anniversary: The Unresolved Homicide of William “Bill” Bishop.”

Alexander told first responders on April 18, 2018 that he found his father unconscious in an armchair, his dog’s leash wrapped around his neck, with the dog still attached. Bill died a few days later. 

Almost a year later, in February 2019, Alexander was charged with killing his father. By October 2019, the judge tossed much of the evidence against him due to sloppy police work, but the case was seemingly proceeding as normal as recently as February, when prosecutors suddenly dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence. 

Seel called for the dismissed evidence to be returned, saying it was “arguably wrongfully dismissed,” and said it should be taken to a grand jury outside of Durham. 

“The City of Durham deserves better than the many horrible injustices of their justice system, which is well known and ignored by many of the elected officials and people who have sworn to serve and protect, and yet do nothing,” Seel’s letter reads. “Do something, Attorney General Josh Stein, namely your job.”

The Facebook page has a photo of  Martin Luther King Jr. with the quotation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) as well as links to news coverage of the case.

The Durham DA’s Office had appealed the tossing of evidence before it dropped the charges. 

In the letter, Seel also called for an investigation into why prosecutors dropped the charges. 

In December, Alexander’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, asked the judge to hold Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked for the case against Alexander to be dropped. The charges left all of them facing the prospect of up to six months in jail. 

In a Feb. 3 letter, Sharp noted no hearing on the motion was on the calendar, so Sharp accused Deberry of dawdling in scheduling a hearing in which she would need to defend herself.  Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges. 

Could prosecutors have dropped the charges to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry in 2018, told the 9th Street Journal in February. 

In February, Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment on the timing of dropping the charges. Sarah Willets, a spokesperson for their office, declined to explain why the charges were dropped beyond that there was insufficient evidence in February and declined to comment further on Friday. 

Deberry takes steps to help reduce state prison population

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry is approving modified sentences for some state prison inmates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Deberry’s office has agreed to modify the sentences of nine convicted drug traffickers, spokesperson Sarah Willets told the 9th Street Journal. Judges have approved the reduced sentences.

Deberry said in a news release that her goal is to identify inmates who can be “safely” released from prison. Her office will review those set to be released soon, convicted of non-violent crimes and those vulnerable to illness due to age. 

“Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic,” Deberry said in the release.

Deberry said coronavirus outbreaks in state prisons made this step necessary. Social distancing is not easy to achieve in jails and prisons, she said, which could allow the disease to spread quickly and put inmates, staff and their families in harm’s way. She also said inmates are more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Deberry’s office is also mulling a few other motions for appropriate relief filed before the pandemic based on other issues, and intends to “treat these requests with the same urgency as those filed in light of COVID-19.”

In March, Deberry announced measures to reduce the county jail population. She moved to release or modify the sentences of those in the jail who don’t pose a public safety threat, are above 60 years old or have underlying health conditions. 

There are currently 260 inmates in the jail, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, well below its capacity of 736. There is no target jail population that Deberry is trying to achieve, Willetts said. 

“We all have a responsibility to try to stem the spread of COVID-19,” Deberry said in the release. “Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic.”

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

Durham courts will delay most hearings and trials because of virus precautions

The Durham County Courthouse will be pretty quiet for the next month.

The Durham County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that starting Monday, March 16, almost all cases scheduled for the next 30 days will be postponed until no earlier than April 16 because of concerns about exposing people to the coronavirus. 

“Recognizing that hundreds of people visit the Durham County Courthouse on a daily basis, these changes are aimed at reducing traffic in the courthouse and accommodating those who are ill or at high-risk of illness due to COVID-19,” the DA’s office said in a news release.

The announcement follows directives from North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley about which cases may continue and a requirement that local clerks post notices directing people not to enter the courthouse if they’ve been exposed to the virus.

While the Durham Courthouse will remain open, only “emergency” proceedings will go on. These include bond, probable cause, and some probation hearings. The courts will continue to hear requests for restraining orders and domestic violence protective orders. And grand juries that have already been empaneled will continue to operate. 

Beasley also allowed exceptions for remotely-held proceedings and those that judges determine will not jeopardize participants’ health or safety. 

Online services, such as eFilings and payments, will also continue.